Ramadan is a month in which I can spend my energy dedicated to my faith. It is my spiritual holiday where I aim to focus solely on worship, learning, duas, earning Allah’s pleasure and gaining His forgiveness and mercy. Due to the uncertainty of life this may be my last Ramadan, therefore, like many I aim to do as much as I can in this month. In my ongoing journey of self-development, I have recently discovered the benefits of using neuroplasticity to optimise my day-to-day living. As I learn more about the brain-body connection I am fascinated by the way Allah Al-Khaliq has created and designed mankind. The human body and its organs, anatomy, complex systems and functions have been created in such a way that when used in conjunction with our natural environment there is harmony within the mind and body. Being at ease physically and mentally means I am able to attend to daily struggles with courage and resilience and become more committed to my worship.
Indeed, We created humans in the best form.
One of the most incredible organs of the human body is the brain. The brain changes throughout life and is not age dependent. Science has proven that the brain is able to grow new cells and strengthen and re-wire itself through a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the changes in the brain that happen as a result of our interactions with our environment. Through intentional acts of practising new habits you can change the pathways in your brain, create new habits and adapt to new ways of thinking and living in order to live with vitality.
This four-point guide intends to provide some physiological tools to optimise your Ramadan as well as daily living, preparing our bodies so we are consistent throughout the month and able to achieve the goals we set at the beginning of the month. These tools will help you to achieve more, push through discomfort and get through the mental and physical blocks so you can reap the benefits.
1) Sleep and Dopamine
The Prophet ﷺ told one of his companions who was praying the whole night to “Offer prayers and also sleep at night, as your body has a right on you.”
Sleep is one of the ways the body repairs itself, relieves stress, boosts immunity and retains learning. Therefore, it is vital to incorporate a good night’s sleep into your routine. Having adequate and good quality sleep can be difficult to achieve every single night especially with the demands and anxieties of today’s fast paced environment. During Ramadan sleep can become difficult due to the extended hours of night worship bringing about tiredness the next day. So how can you ensure you sleep better but still have the drive to pray Tarawih the following evening?
Dopamine is a chemical found naturally in the body and more specifically produced in the brain via sunlight, social connection, food, exercise and amongst other things for motivation, alertness and enhancing your mood. The correct levels of dopamine in the body will aid in sleeping better at night.
Bright light exposure between 10pm and 11pm until 4am suppresses dopamine levels and inhibits learning and focus. It can also lead to fatigue, depressive feelings and emotions, anxiety and sleep disturbances. In particular, screen type light activates a specific type of circuit in the brain which lowers dopamine levels.
When you are checking your phone in the middle of the night the eye and brain clocks are very sensitive, and the light signals to the body that it’s still daytime, which can alter your sleep for several days.
2) Deep rest During the Day
Non-sleep deep rest is a science supported tool for bringing the body back into a calmer state of mind and re-focussing when needed. It involves stepping away from the task at hand for anything between 20 to 90 mins to allow the learning or absorption of information to occur. One of the techniques scientists recommend is napping which enhances retaining information better. Qaylulah which is a nap or rest was practised by our beloved Prophet ﷺ over 1400 years ago and science has only discovered this sunnah several years later.
New learned motor sequences is a term used for the brain to absorb learning during sleep, brief daytime naps or taking a break from what you are undertaking. Learning is a two-step process. The first one is the learning or undertaking of the work itself and the second step is moving away from the activity for a short period of time. It is during periods of being away from the activity via shallow naps or taking a short break that the rewiring of the connections in the brain takes place and the brain changes (neuroplasticity). However, if napping affects night-time sleep then it is best not to nap and avoid napping more than 90 mins which can alter your sleep cycles and impair learning. A rest of some kind which does not involve over-stimulation of the brain via mobile phones and the like will also suffice.
3) Light Energy
Allah Al-Mighty has designed our bodies to absorb light during the day rather than at night. Light is one of the most powerful stimuli for your biology. It will help the release of chemicals and hormones which in turn will help you to get through your day better and more efficiently. After the first week or so of Ramadan many of us begin to feel the fatigue and may struggle to keep the momentum we had at the beginning of the month. Viewing of natural daylight outside in the morning will keep your energy levels in check.
Sunlight exposure activates the neurons or nerve cells in the back of the eyes. These neurons in the eye inform the brain which informs the rest of your cells in the body to release the appropriate hormones and create the correct chemicals at the right time within the body. Being outside for 2-10 mins to view sunlight upon 30-60 mins of waking releases a healthy level of cortisol into your system in the early part of the day which promotes wakefulness and energy throughout the day. There are various benefits of the release of cortisol early in the day such as removing symptoms of depression and a low mood. Light exposure also releases dopamine to give you motivation for the day. Interestingly, sunlight or UV light to the eyes (i.e. ideally morning light outdoors) stimulates and activates other hormones which keeps our desire to eat or not to eat balanced. Hence, during spring and summer we tend to eat less and during the colder winter months we tend to eat more.
The body will receive adequate levels of cortisol and dopamine the next day strengthening the immune system.
O you who believe, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is Him that you worship.
4) Food and Brain Chemistry
Ever have that feeling after iftar where you feel so relaxed you want to fall asleep? This is likely due to the type of food you consumed during iftar. Simple carbohydrates and processed food with added sugars, white flour and foods containing gluten such as breads, pizzas, samosas, crisps, and the myriad of sweet foods available to buy increase serotonin quickly. Whilst serotonin is good for you it is important to get the correct amounts and unfortunately, simple carbohydrates and processed foods do not provide us with a sustainable source of this natural chemical. It makes us feel comfy and relaxed and during Ramadan if you are falling asleep during Tarawih and night worship, chances are higher amounts have been released via these types of foods.
Serotonin is the chemical produced in the brain to help you sleep as well as influence your mood which is why it is sometimes known as the ‘feel-good’ chemical. Much of it is found in the gut hence the relationship between serotonin levels and food consumption. Simple carbohydrates and highly processed food with added sugars drive your glucose levels or blood sugars up quickly and will not sustain a higher serotonin level for long after consumption.
In addition, blood sugars or glucose have to be kept at a healthy range as high glucose levels can damage the neurons in the gut or kill them causing all sorts of havoc in your body. Remarkably, when we ingest sugar these neurons respond to sugar and send electric signals into the brain seeking consumption of more sugary foods. The food and drink we crave is partly due to the conscious experience of the taste of the food but also due to the subconscious experience that starts in the gut. This causes you to seek out more of certain foods even though you may not know why you are craving them.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates such as lentils, oats, fruits, beans, whole grain bread and flour are healthier for your body and overall well-being, as they result in a lower blood sugar spike. This is because they are broken down slowly within the body, allowing for a longer lasting serotonin increase and more stable information to your body that you are satiated.
Some of the physiological support systems described above are there to help us gain the mental and physical stamina required to get through daily challenges, attain general focus and improve the quality of our worship. Incorporating these into your daily routine often will allow you to work in harmony with your body. Poor quality sleep, the lack of natural daylight, over exposure of electronic devices and the over consumption of sugary and processed foods impact the nervous system adversely which in turn can lead to many physical and mental ailments. Allah has given us the most incredible human form and by looking after this body and treating it respectfully, through giving it the love and nutrients it needs, gratitude can be formed. When we are in a state of gratitude towards Allah, He promises to give us more. More barakah during Ramadan, more internal peace, more patience and grace to deal with life’s uncertainties and best of all more blessings in the hereafter.
If you are grateful, I will surely bestow more favours on you…
Aaisha is a senior quantity surveyor working in the construction industry. She believes the key to a successful life is nourishing the mind, body and soul using Quranic and Prophetic practices as well as secular practices to enhance our understanding of ourselves and our connection to Allah. In her spare time she makes her own raw chocolate filled medjool dates and other refined sugar free snacks IG: @majesticmedjewels
By Amira Ahmed